A Riveting Tale of Illicit Email Use…

You just KNEW it was a problem…but the saga in Mew Mexico lays bare the reality of the chicanery inherent in state FOI laws that remain silent on the issue of using non-governmental email accounts:

In June of 2012, the political press corps in New Mexico acquired a batch of interesting emails written by some of the highest-ranking members of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s staff. The emails were being released by Michael Corwin, a Democratic operative who once worked on opposition research for former governor Bill Richardson.

The documents did not cast Martinez’s administration in the best light: They showed administration officials compiling lists of non-union teachers for the governor’s outside political director, moving meetings with lobbyists to locations considered more discreet, and planning fishing trips with industry executives. Many of these emails involved state business—but they were sent from officials’ private email accounts.

Soon, reporters obtained hundreds more emails, all showing public business being conducted from Yahoo, Gmail, and political PAC accounts. Many of the emails came from Corwin, who said he gained access to them through a source who had bought the Internet domain Gov. Martinez used in her 2010 campaign—and all its related contents, including records of emails sent after the campaign had ended from related PAC accounts.

It’s a heck of a story. Read the rest here.

As the story concludes…it’s an ongoing problem:

The New Mexico officials’ use of private email is just one example of public servants trying to dodge scrutiny by conducting government business in a digital space they believe is safe from the public eye. Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal have all gotten in trouble for it. In Washington, DC, a lawsuit just pushedthe city council to stop the practice. Local officials have tried it in Texas and California as well. And while the majority of states have ruled that these private emails count as public records, as the Santa Fe Reporter’s experience shows, it’s not always that simple to get ahold of them.

Yes. Ask Legislators to Voluntarily Release E-mail. That’ll work….

I admire the idealism here, but wow…

Utah State Senators on both sides of the aisle are trying to make it easier for the public to see what is in legislators’ email inboxes.

Sens. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, and Curt Bramble, R-Provo, have both submitted requests for bills that would deal with legislator’s emails. The efforts were inspired by the fight for documents related to the Legislature’s 2011 redistricting plan, which were being held back until the Utah Democratic Party paid almost $10,000 to cover the cost of putting the records together.

Lawmakers eventually released the documents after news outlets, including The Salt Lake Tribune, requested the documents under the Government Records Access and Management Act, commonly known as GRAMA.

“GRAMA is not working for journalists, the public or the Legislature,” Dabakis said.

Dabakis, who is also the state Democratic Party chairman, said he is working with Bramble on a way to improve access to records, especially email. He says the 1992 law was written before email and electronic communications became prevalent, and the rules should reflect that reality.

Open federal court records: Free Pacer!

Passing along this important post from the Sunlight Foundation

On Monday, Princeton’s Steve Schultze argued for the right of all Americans to access federal court records online at no charge. He made these remarks not only because it is fundamental to a democracy that the people know what their government is doing, but because his friend Aaron Swartzwas improperly persecuted by the government for his efforts to ensure that all Americans can exercise this right.

As Steve explains, all federal court records are available online — behind a paywall, on court-run PACER — that unlawfully overcharges the public for access and subverts the reason and rationale for its existence.Court records should be free for the public to access.

He is looking for Congress to act by considering this legislation, which provides for free and open access to court records. He is looking for bill sponsors, and asks that you call your elected representatives.

Steve gave this talk as part of a series of 3-minute lightning talks on transparency hosted on Capitol Hill on Monday by the Advisory Committee on Transparency, a project of the Sunlight Foundation that brings together organizations from across the political spectrum that believe in a more open government.

If you like this video, please share it. Call your member of Congress. And visit openpacer.org.

So proud of he D.C. Open Government Coalition…what great work, and what a signal victory!

D.C. Councilmembers and staff cannot avoid the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by doing business on personal, rather than government, email accounts, the Council of the District of Columbia agreed today in settling a lawsuit brought by the D.C. Open Government Coalition.

The Council had previously denied the D.C. OGC’s request for government-related emails sent or received by Councilmembers from their personal email accounts. The OGC filed the suit in October challenging the Council’s position that such emails are off-limits to requesters, even if their subject matter concerns official business.

“We commend the Council for taking action to address the problem highlighted by our lawsuit,” said James A. McLaughlin, Co-chair of the OGC’s Legal Committee. “This settlement closes a potential loophole in the District’s public-records law, and it makes Council more transparent and accountable.”

The D.C. FOIA provides the public a right to access records about government activity. In response to D.C. OGC’s request, the Council initially stated that it would provide emails originating from government accounts only, but would not search Councilmembers’ private accounts. The Council has reversed that position in response to the OGC lawsuit.

The settlement states that, in response to a request, the FOIA Officer must take steps to identify and collect emails from a Council employee’s non-governmental accounts “if there is a reasonable basis to believe that some or all of the reasonably described records … are to be found” there.

Going forward, the Council adopted new rules requiring Councilmembers and their staffs to use government email accounts for government business, and if business should occur on personal email, to ensure those messages become government records. This policy mirrors Mayor Vincent Gray’s July policy directing all D.C. employees to use their government email accounts for government business.

California bill would require searchable format for public records…now that’s progress!

Great news from the good folks at CaliforniaWatch:

California could become the first state in the nation to require that public agencies provide their records in searchable formats, such as Excel or Word.

A bill making its way through the Legislature would establish an open data standard, requiring agencies to buy software that offers data in searchable formats when replacing existing technology. Agencies would also have to use these formats when posting data online or responding to requests for public records.

Currently, many agencies provide information in image files that are not searchable even though they also store that data in more easily searchable formats.

An open standard would provide greater transparency, according to the bill’s author state, Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. Yee’s office began writing the legislation after First Amendment advocates complained that some public records were largely impenetrable because they could not be searched…

…New Hampshire is the only other state that has approved a similar, if less restrictive, open source law. New Hampshire’s legislation, approved in January, requires state agencies to consider open source software when acquiring software and encourages public agencies to make public records available in an open data format.

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FAC Sues City Over Emails…

A new suit filed by the First Amendment Coalition claims that city officials’ emails about government business are public records even though they were sent or received on the officials’ personal email accounts.

The suit, against the city of Auburn and Auburn’s City Council, also challenges the city’s policy–similar to that of many California cities and counties– of deleting most government emails shortly after they are received, regardless of their status under the Public Records Act. The suit was filed June 1 in Placer County Superior Court.

FAC is joined in the case by Victoria Connolly, an Auburn resident and community activist. She and FAC submitted public record requests for emails to and among Auburn Council members dealing with a local ballot initiative to convert Auburn to a “charter city.” The locally controversial ballot issue was defeated in last week’s elections. (The measure was opposed by Ms. Connolly; FAC took no position on the charter city question).

Karl Olson, the attorney representing both FAC and Connolly, said the public has a right to see council members’ emails about Auburn city business. “When city officials discuss or conduct city business, the writings should be open regardless of whose computer they use or what email account they use,” Olson said.

During the period covered by the record requests, the city’s website listed the council members’ personal emails as the addresses to use for communicating with the City Council members on government business.

“It’s undisputed that council members’ emails on government business, when sent from a dot-gov email account, are subject to the Public Records Act,” said FAC executive director Peter Scheer. “If council members could avoid the disclosure law simply by switching to a gmail or similar personal email account, their most important communications would evade public accountability,” Scheer said.

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Tweets and texts and emails, oh my!

Electronic communications — specifically tweets, text and e-mail messages — between city officials discussing public business are subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, even if they were sent from personal cellphones and accounts, a state circuit judge ruled.

Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt issued an oral ruling Monday ordering the Champaign City Council to turn over all such electronic messages to a local newspaper, The News-Gazette, affirming an earlier opinionissued by the Illinois attorney general’s office.

City Attorney Fred Stavins said officials are deliberating whether to appeal.

“We didn’t think the Freedom of Information Act covered that kind of stuff,” he said. “There is not that much law in that area.”

Last July, News-Gazette reporter Patrick Wade filed a request for all electronic communications, “including cellphone text messages, sent and received by members of the city council and the mayor during city council meetings and study sessions since (and including) May 3.” Wade’s request included messages on city-issued cellphones, e-mail addresses and Twitter accounts, as well as personal ones.

The city disclosed 24 pages of documents — with personal e-mail addresses and phone numbers redacted — and withheld the rest, claiming they were not public records because they were from officials’ personal e-mail accounts and phones.

Wade asked the attorney general’s office to review the city’s decision not to disclose the requested materials in full. The office issued its opinion in November 2011, declaring the city’s actions to be “clearly inconsistent with” the state’s FOIA.

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